I sat down with Yael a couple of weeks ago to get an inside look at the elective (note: for the sake of length and readibility, I’ve edited and reordered our conversation down to the key concepts we discussed):
Caroline: What do you see as the goals of the course?
Yael: To give the students some tools and language around project management. …Project management is a discipline and it’s a title of a lot of people’s jobs, but in fact, the skills and the ideas exist in everyone’s job. It penetrates everyone’s lives and it’s either in your individual life or even in your professional life as an academic you need these skills of project mgmt. The language and the concepts can you help frame ideas, think strategically, make on-going decisions and organize your thoughts around an activity that you’re involved in. I think that MBA students who start their new jobs, if they walk into a new job unaware that there is a discipline such as project management, or they’re unaware of the language and its implications, it is a problem, or an issue. I think everyone should be equipped with these skills and this language. It’s almost like accounting in the sense that not everyone’s going to be an accountant and actually do the balance sheets, …but having an awareness of what it exists, what it can provide, and who’s in charge is a fundamental part of our scope as a professional in a business environment. So for me, it was a glaring miss that we didn’t have it [in the curriculum]. There are so many courses that touch on related issues that don’t actually have project management in it, that it was just a matter of time until I could offer it.
One thing that I’m probably going to change and try to emphasize upfront is that the idea is not necessary to learn these tools. I think that by the time that you reach second year, you realize that Crystal Ball is not the purpose. The purpose is to talk about distributions. The purpose is to think about risks and risk profiles. The purpose is to realize “I want to represent uncertainty and I’m going to find a way to do it even if I don’t have Crystal Ball.” MS Project and @Risk and all these tools, they’re just packages and they’re not the end of the learning. The idea is to use them as a vehicle and to say “oh, here’s how I can think about risk. Here’s how I can plan my project and introduce risk. Here’s how I can think about a critical path. Here’s how a critical path might change in light of risk. This is how critical path will help me make decisions.” It’s all about, at the end of the day, why are you exploring this? What is the business challenge? What is it that you’re struggling with from a project management perspective, and then find a way to do it in the tool.
Caroline: Who would benefit from the class? It kinda sounds like you’re saying that every student should benefit from the class.
Yael: Ideally yes. I’m certain that a lot of professors say that about their electives. “These are the most important skills!” But just on a general knowledge basis, you should have some exposure to these concepts.
Caroline: Do you ever see—if not a course within the core—being able to integrate these concepts more into core classes in other disciplines for people who aren’t able to take your elective?
Yael: Some schools try to introduce these concepts as part of operations. I think that the problem with that is it ends up being somewhat dry and technical, because if you’re going to isolate two or three set classes, it’s going to be on the very technical, mundane stuff. And I think that actually what’s more interesting and inspiring in an elective is the entire concept and taking a more strategic view and how it ties into other aspects of running a business and not only, for instance, focusing on the technicalities of the critical path... I think that having more variety in terms of more sections will always help, if I could scale it up. Like today more than half of our MBAs graduate with the [Decision Analysis and Optimization (DAO)] class. …Would I like one day for project management to be the same? Yes. Is it more important than valuation? Probably not at this stage, but I think that it’s a fundamental skill. What I like about it is that it’s a fundamental skill that can cut across our students regardless of what industry they’re going into. …
Caroline: Why are you teaching this class? What is your personal connection to the subject and why do you find that you would be a great professor for this?
Yael: One of the things that got me to think about going back to school was that I always loved project management. I found myself doing this in informal ways in high school. I found myself doing some of this…when I was in the army for three years. I was in a logistics unit, but I did a lot of these types of special projects and planning them and really controlling them. I loved looking at Gant charts; I had them all over my walls. And the more I grew, and after I did my industrial engineering, I went into information systems, and I sold ERP systems. The project aspect I always really cared about. One of the things I enjoyed was working with companies to introduce a project management component into their ERP system. That’s what I did when I was selling ERP systems was we had this baby module that had project management—it linked MS Project to your ERP system and you saw how those two things impacted how the business ran and really had a benefit. And that’s what I wrote my applications for business school on when I decided to go back and get my Master’s and PhD. That’s what I wanted to focus on—how project management impacts managers’ lives and how it’s a fundamental part of their decision making and their success, ultimately. When I went back to business school I did find a way to combine project management with decision analysis. It was always about how do we make decisions in project environments? How do we make decisions to make our projects more successful and how do we choose projects to make our company more successful? … For me, it’s a sweet spot between operations, industrial engineering, and decision analysis. It also has another aspect that is the psychology—a lot of the individual decision making behavior that affects how we perform both in projects as individuals and projects as an organization, and I always found that fascinating. It just brings together everything that I’m interested in.
Caroline: Any advice for upcoming Second Years about choosing classes or how to think about structuring their electives?
Yael: …It warms my heart to hear students talk about their second year as an opportunity to learn as much as they can from the great set of faculty and to expose themselves to a great set of ideas that they …potentially never in their life have a chance to do again. Not so much career focused, or not as much grades or schedule focused, or what’s going to be the easier load, right? It’s about what interests you, what faculty you find intriguing, what you think will challenge you and expose you to ideas that will make you grow and learn from. And so if you can combine a set of electives that will both reward you in your long-term career and in just your personal growth and curiosity, you’re going to find yourself as challenged and as excited as you were in the core. And so first stripping down this notion that second year is a breeze, and coming well-prepared to work hard. …Walking into these set of electives with a real desire and a thirst to learn and to seize the opportunity and say this is a once in a lifetime thing. You’re here, you’re in the environment that will support it, you have faculty that are devoted to it, and we’re all working hard to achieve it. Let’s enjoy the ride to the best of our abilities. I think that’s the best way to enjoy second year. Really walking away, having experienced something.